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Online cooking experiences, from Bo-Kaap to Anywhere

Fayruza Abrahams: hands full of turmeric. (Photo: Supplied)

Around the world in 80 days could morph into around the world via 80 kitchens as Airbnb ups the ante on online cooking options. Where we once flew, we now Zoom.

So how’s this for a cool lockdown – in fact, a cool anytime – dining idea?

There’s this British man. He’s living and working in Poland. Presently self-partnered, as in solo in his apartment. As he has used Airbnb in the past for travel accommodation, he is on their email list. So gets the April mass-mailing that talks about the introduction of online experiences.

Alone and pretty much confined to his live-work space at weekends (before Poland started reopening), he scans the offerings. Sees he can sign up for a workshop that says he will Learn to Cook Cape Malay Curry from a woman in Cape Town.

On the designated Sunday at the assigned time, he is in his kitchen with his laptop. He has his olive oil, a large chopped onion, two medium tomatoes, garlic, ginger and all the spices he can lay his hands on from an ingredients list posted online. Everything he has been told to set up for the lentil curry and savoury rice he will make. And, all going well, have for supper.

In my imagination, with some delectable Polish vodka, thinking back to a dinner at Elixir by Dom Wódki in Warsaw, the world’s first restaurant to offer food and vodka pairings. Or perhaps he will have it with a Polish riesling, thinking back to a wine tasting with a winemaker at his vineyard near Krakow. And given that the Central European country’s wine industry is on the up. With a prediction, I read on the Wikipedia Polish wine link, that courtesy global warming Poland may, by 2050, be a leading global wine producer as drought destroys vineyards in the south of Italy and Spain.

Or, being a Brit, perhaps our guy will settle for his favourite Polish beer.  

Fayruza Abrahams teaching from her kitchen via her screen. (Photo: Supplied)

Enter Fayruza Abrahams, who lives in a colourful house with a welcoming kitchen in Bo-Kaap in Cape Town and who was one of the first people worldwide to answer Airbnb’s call for online experiences. Which proved an easy transition for the veteran of the Airbnb in-person culinary experience.

“I’ve had repeats,” she tells me when I track her down to speak to her for this story.

“This one English gentleman has booked five times so far on Sundays.”

You guessed. Our man in Poland.

“We started with my Cape Malay experience,” which is what she offers on the Airbnb online experiences platform. “Then, after he did that, he asked if I could teach him other things. So the next week I taught him a prawn dish. Then butter chicken the following. The next Sunday, how to make a veggie breyani. Most recently, masala snoek with a wet spice rub. He used sea bass.

“He asked to do individual classes. We discuss what class we’ll do ahead of time each week. As I can determine the group size through the AirBnB site, I ‘fill’ and close his classes at one (participant).”

The number of sign-ups Airbnb permits for her 90-minute classes is six. Could be fun. You book and it’s like a lucky-dip: who in the world you will be cooking with, from your kitchen, via Zoom.

And private lessons, done via Airbnb, by arrangement, are possible. Convenient when it works for both. As was also the case of a woman in Singapore whose son booked Abrahams’ Cape Malay cooking class for his mom on Mother’s Day. 

As Abrahams runs up to four classes a day, there are plenty of time options. So, in case you’re wondering, nobody is missing out.

Fayruza Abrahams: sharing her Bo-Kaap spice world. (Photo: Supplied)

I saw Abrahams’ Cape Malay curry offering with its striking multi-spice pictures and her multiple review accolades when looking for South Africa-based online Airbnb culinary experiences. This story idea was suggested by TGIFood editor, Tony Jackman, who knows I do Airbnb room rentals. Or rather, did Airbnb room rentals. Before lockdown.

As an Airbnb host (Superhost still, last time I looked), I had received the email about online experiences. But did not give it any thought at the time. In fact, never even looked at, let alone considered, the Airbnb “experience” option.

This despite nudges from my US friend, Frances, who became my lockdown buddy when she moved into my vacated Airbnb space the day before we all went to ground. And where she stayed till she got on a repatriation flight, Washington-bound, a couple of weeks ago.

“Okay if I contribute Moroccan saffron rice?” she asks when I suggest roasting (another) chicken to share while physical distancing on the small stoep outside my back door. A stoep with a view across Durban to the Indian Ocean and, on this night, a rising nearly-full moon.

The saffron rice, she reminds me, is one of the dishes she learned to make while doing her Airbnb experience. A gift from one of her sisters this past Christmas, shortly before her most recent visit to Durban. Before any of us, Airbnb included, imagined that where we once flew, we would Zoom.

She had told me about going to Brooklyn, New York. To a brownstone. Being the sole participant. Having this great time with this flamboyant woman.

So the gift had been fun to do. And now she could share it with others.

And, by the way, had I checked out the “experiences” yet?

Fayruza Abrahams – spicing up the world. (Photo: Supplied)

I message Abrahams via Airbnb. Before she has time to message back, I’ve found her personal website, her cellphone number and her email address simply by using “Cape Malay” as my Google clue.

She tells me when we talk by WhatsApp, our call delayed when a Zoom class she’s doing for someone as a favour goes over time, that she ran her first Airbnb “experience” in October 2017.

She had by then learned, from her gran, to love being in the kitchen; she’d spent 14 years as a flight attendant for SAA exploring food and collecting recipes in cities she visited; and done extensive customer service work in Cape Town.

Then, looking for a new not-so-corporate career direction after a run-in with an auto-immune disorder, she was alerted to Airbnb by her niece, who was thinking “room rental”.

But Abrahams was immediately drawn to the experiences.

“I contacted Airbnb. Said my idea was to teach people about my culture and heritage through food. Cape Malay. Cook in a fun and educational way. Have people be engaged.

“My career, looking back, was people first and then food. This would combine the two. I am service-level standard. I’d had my first-class (passenger) experience with SAA.

“We discussed it. She liked the idea and said go for it.”

Abrahams ran her first Airbnb Cape Malay cooking experience, in her home kitchen, in October 2017. By January 2018 she had accumulated 100 5-star reviews.

By lockdown this year, she was offering four different in-her-kitchen options. Had hosted people from around the world. Built up to going-on 400 online reviews.

In April 2020 her Airbnb manager approached her. Asked if she could adapt. Offer a class online. She agreed. She would adapt her core Cape Malay option.

“I teach my guests the same as before in a shortened version. I tell them about Bo-Kaap. About Cape Malay food culture. About the flavour components. The health benefits of the spices we mix.

“I teach them to make curry paste. Then we cook a vegetarian meal. Lentils, beans or chickpeas. Or they can use chicken or adapt the ingredients as works for them. We do a sambal. A dressing. I have a recipe for turmeric milk. A latte recipe my research led me to create, with nutmeg and ginger. It works as an anti-inflammatory and has helped me.”  

Aliza Shoshan-Weston in her kitchen and mine (via my laptop). (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

It’s Sunday, late afternoon. I am in Durban with my laptop set up. In the kitchen. Via Frances, I have hooked up with her Moroccan-cooking Airbnb teacher, Aliza Shoshan-Weston. Who is happy to hear her cooking skills are being shared around the world. And who has invited me for a private Zoom lesson. From her kitchen in Brooklyn, New York.

Since lockdown, Shoshan-Weston has adapted all the classes she offers through her personal website, Manna Luna, to be virtual. And for today, she has sent me ingredient lists for an Israeli salad. And for shakshuka, which I Google and learn is a classic North African and Middle Eastern dish. The word being the Arabic term for “mixed up”.

She has said the spices listed are flexible, substitutions can be made and the recipe is for four. All of which is fortunate, given that for once I have no tomatoes. Only one egg and no parsley. A single red bell pepper. A single large onion. And don’t relish the idea of a Sunday food shop. (We substitute apple in the salad, add mushrooms to both dishes, fresh spinach to my shakshuka and make do.)

Israeli salad, made during our class. (Photo: Aliza Shoshan-Weston)

For the Israeli salad (her given recipe, not my adaptation): 1 small green bell pepper, 2 large beefsteak tomatoes, 1 small red or white sweet onion, ½ bunch of parsley, 2 Tablespoons olive oil, 1 lemon,  salt and pepper “as you like”.

Easy, this one. Slice and dice the small pepper, tomatoes and onion. Chop the parsley. Make a dressing with the olive oil, juice of the lemon, salt and pepper.

This three-ingredient blend is her favourite dressing. “And I like to mix it all by hand,” she says. So that is what I do.  

Shakshuka, cooked during our class. (Photo: Aliza Shoshan-Weston)

We cook the shakshuka together. And while we cook, we chat. She tells me her story of being born into a Moroccan family in Jerusalem, the granddaughter of a spice dealer. She learned about spices and their healing properties from a young age. And transitioning into cooking from more corporate careers a few years ago in the US.

She shows me how I can view different parts of the cooking and prepping process on her three screens, via my laptop. Reprimands me when I say I only have olive and canola oil but no avocado or flaxseed oil for higher temperatures. (I do now.)

So, for the shakshuka (given recipe, not my adaptation): 3 medium beefsteak tomatoes or 6 plum tomatoes (chopped), 3 cloves garlic (chopped), 3 tablespoon avocado or flaxseed oil (into the stovetop frying pan, with glass lid), 1 red or green bell paper (chopped), 1 spicy chilli pepper (optional), 8 medium eggs, 1 teaspoon paprika; ½ teaspoon salt.

To the heated oil, add sequentially the garlic, the spices, the tomato, the pepper. When cooked to your satisfaction, break the eggs into what’s cooking. Cover. Allow the simmering to continue till they’re done. And your dish is ready to relish.

Shoshan-Weston emails me pictures of her versions of what we’ve cooked immediately after the class. I, in turn, am astonished that my adaptation is, in both cases, astonishingly good. 

So I have now explored the Airbnb online experiences platform (Frances!). Learned that I can visit a farm in Croatia to discover new things about olive oil and Mediterranean fare; a kitchen in India to clue up on tips and techniques; a chef in Mexico to experiment with tacos; Lucrezia in Italy for pasta and opera. And have countless other global culinary adventures without ever leaving my kitchen.

I see that around the world in 80 days, a la the Jules Verne classic and its various adaptations, could easily transform into around the world via 80 kitchens. Seems this will be one doable travel option if restrictions continue for the next couple of years. And a good one even if they don’t. DM/TGIFood

Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her via her website wandahennig.com.

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